Open != Competition

In the spirit of blogging more regularly, I just want to quickly flag something Fred Wilson said this month, though I don’t have the time to give it the attention I’d like to. Here he is, via Business Insider:

However, now that Android is winning, he [Wilson] says, “My new worry is that Android could run the table.”

After seeing that Google has 80% of the smartphone market, and more hip tech snoots are into Android, he’s worried that Google will completely control the smartphone market.

He’s hoping Apple releases a truly low-cost iPhone to gain marketshare.

“I find myself rooting hard for Apple now. I sense the danger they are in and I don’t want either smartphone OS to be so dominant that we lose the level playing field we have now,” says Wilson. “It’s very important for startups, innovation, and an open mobile ecosystem for all.”

Business Insider goes on to zero in on the idea that Apple could be in trouble. I want to touch on something else.

I like Wilson’s writing a lot, but I am very confused by the implication, as I read this, that more competition in the smartphone OS market will mean a more open mobile ecosystem. Really? Apple is historically the antithesis of open. And while Android isn’t Linux, there is a very real sense in which it is more open than iOS.

Put another way, “open” and “competitive” are different, though more of either of them tends to mean less control by any single company in a given market. That doesn’t mean they’re the same. “Open” is vague and means different things in different contexts, so let’s go to Tim Wu’s definition:

First, “open” and “closed” can refer to how permissive a tech firm is, with respect to who can partner with or interconnect with its products to reach consumers. We say an operating system like Linux is “open” because anyone can design a device that runs Linux.

We can agree, hopefully, that by this definition more Apple market share is unlikely to mean more “openness” in mobile.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing good about a more competitive landscape, or nothing to be feared by Google’s dominance. Ideally, I’d like to see relatively more open systems like Android push out more closed systems like iOS, but in a way where no single company has inordinate control of the open system(s) that are left. That’s not how things are looking with Android.

So we can argue about whether we need Apple and iOS as a counterweight to Google, and whether such a counterweight is good for startups and for innovation. But I don’t see the case for an increase in Apple’s market share leading to more openness.